Matthew Sauk has worked with football players from all backgrounds during his long career in the Arena Football League.

Matthew Sauk has worked with football players from all backgrounds during his long career in the Arena Football League.

Some of his favorites, he says, are the determined underdogs from small schools. Guys like former Crater standout Bryce Peila, who immediately appealed to the first-year head coach of the expansion Portland Thunder franchise.

After seeing him during a private workout in November, Sauk was sold on the former NCAA Division II Western Oregon University safety.

"To me, the small-school kids are more willing to work out for you and try out and lot of them have a pretty big chip on their shoulder," says Sauk, who was a quarterback at Utah State before playing for nearly a decade in the AFL. He then coached with the Spokane Shock and Utah Blaze before taking the gig in Portland. "They were maybe transfers or were overlooked in the state where they were from. They know they have to perform. I like that kind of player."

A strong training camp showing sealed the 23-year-old Peila's one-year contract with the Thunder. He will start in the team's season opener against the San Jose SaberCats tonight at the Moda Center. The game can be seen on the CBS Sports Network.

Peila is a perfect fit, Sauk says.

"The first thing I liked was his size," Sauk says. "He's got a thicker body, he's strong and he's got great hands, which is very important. No. 2, he's is physical and he's not afraid of contact."

For his part, the 6-foot, 205-pound Peila continued to train after his college career ended without any indicators that he'd be able to play professionally. He returned to Central Point and worked odd jobs while keeping his eyes open for football opportunities.

"There were days when I would come home upset and drained from not feeling like I'd get the opportunity to play," Peila says. "I believed I could play at a high level."

His chance came when former North Medford star Jason Slowey (who is currently with the B.C. Lions) passed along contact information for the Thunder.

After some persistence, Peila received a private workout Nov. 20 in Tualatin. He performed well and was invited to camp in February. He made the final 20-man active roster earlier this month.

"I kept calling and kept calling, then when my shot came I was ready," Peila says.

He wowed teammates and fans during a scrimmage last week with two interceptions — including one for a score — and a load of tackles. Members of the Thunder buzzed on the sidelines and began discussing his collegiate game film. Peila owns the Great Northwest Athletic Conference record for interception return yards and finished his career at WOU with 20 picks.

Last October, the Milwaukee Mustangs franchise sold its rights to Terry Emmert, who started the new Portland club.

Portland's headliner is former Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas.

"It's really exciting," Peila says. "It seems like the city is really coming together and backing us. I can't tell you how excited I am to get involved in the community and be a part of that."

Peila is adapting to the indoor game, which features a padded surface 85 feet wide and 50 yards long. He is a jack linebacker in a sport that is much faster and creates more one-on-one situations than the outdoor edition.

"The biggest thing he's worked on is turning his hips a little quicker in tight areas," Sauk says. "Playing safety in the outdoor game there is a lot more time to recover and change direction. In our game it's so small you have to be precise in how you move."

Peila says he is loving this new challenge.

"I'm having a ball really," he says. "I'm just grateful for the opportunity to suit up again."

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Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email Find him online at twitter.comdanjonesmt